The game of Tetris is based on a simple concept — continually rotating and moving falling blocks to complete and clear horizontal rows for as long as possible — but there’s so much more to its backstory than most people know.
Apple TV+’s Cold War-era thriller “Tetris” explores the true story behind the creation of the classic strategy game, chronicling how one man risked his life and outsmarted the KGB during the late 1980s to make the puzzle game the global phenomenon it is today.
Following the feature’s world premiere at South by Southwest, the filmmakers and their muses discussed the harrowing tale of an underdog determined to bring the game worldwide, despite complications that ranged from navigating an intense political climate to receiving multiple death threats.
For the post-screening panel discussion, director Jon S. Baird was joined by screenwriter Noah Pink, actor Taron Egerton and the people who inspired the film: video game salesman Henk Rogers and software engineer Alexey Pajitnov. Moderated by the film festival’s director, Claudette Godfrey, the conversation began with the screenplay and how Pink discovered the story.
“I heard about the story in 2015,” Pink recalled. “At that point, I had nothing produced in my life, and so I tried to convince a lot of people to let me write this script. Everybody said no, so I just went off and wrote it.”
As fate would have it, the screenplay ended up on the right desk. Producer Gregor Cameron picked it up and called Pink the next day with the news that he and his team at AI Film wanted to make the movie.
“I was like, ‘All right, yeah, sure.’ Sorry, Gregor, but that’s how I felt,” Pink said. “And then, literally, a month later, I got a call from our other producer, Matthew Vaughn, who called me on the phone, and he’s like, ‘I just have a question for you, Noah: Why the fuck hasn’t anyone made this movie?’ I was like, ‘Well, maybe it could be you.’ He’s like, ‘It’s going to be me,’ and he did.”
In the film, Egerton plays Rogers, a Dutch-born entrepreneur based in Japan who puts his life savings into Tetris after finding the game at a sales conference. Rogers buys a license to release the game in Japan, but the contract he thinks he’s secured is more complicated than that. Up against his competitors, he travels to Russia to obtain distribution rights and forms a friendship with Tetris creator Pajitnov, played by Nikita Efremov.
The team made the movie at the end of the first phase of the pandemic, and Egerton’s research involved video calls with the real-life Rogers, who, in retrospect, described his unrelenting pursuits as “about 20% stupidity and about 80% determination.”
In addition to these virtual meetings, the universal themes depicted in the script helped Egerton connect with the character. During the panel, he explained that the film’s story boils down to two friends and how their shared bond for gaming breaks down geographic and ideological barriers.
“I could identify with [their love of play], and that’s what I loved about it,” Egerton said. “When you get an actor as talented as Nikita, and you’ve got the kind of writing that Noah did, it’s a joy to play those scenes. That’s what I went and tried to do.”
Elsewhere during the panel, Pajitnov was asked about what led him to take the leap of faith and trust Rogers.
“Because that’s what happened in reality — that’s what actually happened,” Pajitnov said. “First of all, we were really estranged. But later on, we [realized] that we’re both doing the same [thing], that we are colleagues, that we love games. We designed the game, we became friends and we’re still friends.”
Baird emphasized that the level of tension achieved in “Tetris” is all credit to the actors. “You can use in-music, you can use the speed of the cutting, you can use the lighting,” he said. “You can do a lot. But what there’s no substitute for is the performances. For me, it’s all in the performances, the attention there.
“When you get guys like Taron and Toby Jones and Roger Allam and the amazing Russian actors we’ve had, these guys make my job a lot easier. I think that that’s what you need to do. Any aspiring directors out there, that’s what you need to do. Cast your movie properly and, obviously, have a great script like [the one] Noah wrote.”
As for whether the film’s team took creative license or stuck to real events, both Rogers and Pajitnov confirmed the story was close to accurate.
“They captured what happened to me over a year-and-a-half in two hours,” Rogers said, as Pajitnov added, “That was emotionally, intellectually and spiritually a very truthful movie.”
Pink and Baird concluded the panel by emphasizing how a lot of the film was true, sharing that the beauty of it is the fact that these high-stakes events really did happen, even if it all seems so unbelievable.
“Tetris” will premiere globally on Apple TV+ on March 31.
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